October 13, 2010

Picketers and Twitterers

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What creates social change? According to a contentious Malcolm Gladwell essay in The New Yorker, social media is not the answer.

Skeptical of our growing reliance on communication technologies, Gladwell questions the extent to which social media can bring about substantial social change. He argues that despite common consensus, Twitter and Facebook are not as revolutionary as they’ve been made out to be, and that the impact and purpose of such technologies has been misunderstood and exaggerated.

Though the esteemed Gladwell has received a fair amount of heat since his essay was published last week, he voices legitimate concerns over the future of activism. Have we thrown in the towel too soon? Have we blindly surrendered to technology, giving up our natural human capacity to create comprehensive social change?

Analysis of Gladwell and his critics suggests that there just might be a middle ground in the battle over who and what defines an activist in 2010 — a win-win for social media gurus and old-school picketers alike. Social activists must strike a balance between their cause and their tools, by using the right tools for the right purposes, while recognizing their limitations and not overstating their impact.

Historically, social change required risk, sacrifice and commitment, and for this reason, activists were rare. Suffragettes and boycotters in the civil-rights movement were not a dime a dozen, but unique individuals intimately connected and committed to their causes. Gladwell characterizes such activism that challenges the status quo as “high-risk activism” built on “strong-ties.” Activists traditionally joined these movements because of a personal connection to the cause or because close friends were already involved.

In contrast, Gladwell argues that social media is centered around “weak ties.” You can “follow” people on Twitter and be “friends” with people on Facebook who you may have never met, making such relationships “weak” in Gladwell’s eyes. Though “acquaintances” have their value — they expose us to new ideas and facilitate the sharing of information — they are not loyal, nor reliable. If you need someone to put his or her life on the line, who are you going to ask? Your Facebook “friend” or your best friend since childhood? I vote the latter.

Today, social activism is trendy. It seems that anyone and everyone claims to be an activist — celebrities, soccer moms, fifth graders … you name it. This proliferation of activism reflects the social media “revolution,” which has altered the relationship between the powerful and the powerless. Fifteen-year-olds in New Jersey can communicate and collaborate with 15-year-olds in Mumbai and rally in support of a cause of their choice. The question is no longer if ordinary people can create change, but what kind of change can they create? Can a few 15-year-olds get 100,000 people to join a Facebook group called “Stop Human Trafficking?” Absolutely. Can 15 year olds chatting online actually stop human trafficking? Probably not.

Furthermore, social media has succeeded in making activists out of ordinary people by reducing the level of commitment traditionally associated with activism. “Liking” a cause, joining a Facebook group and tweeting 140 characters requires little sacrifice or risk. Similarly, sending an e-mail blast urging your friends to sign a petition — though certainly noble — can hardly be characterized as “high-risk activism.” As Gladwell states, “social networks are effective at increasing participation — by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires.”

But is there anything wrong with these participatory support mechanisms? Does social media promote a lazy type of activism that deters people from making the significant sacrifices necessary for substantial change?

When it all boils down, the real issue at hand is the conflict between quantity-activism and quality-activism. If the goal is education and advocacy — getting as many signatures as possible — communication technology is the ultimate game-changer. But if the goal is more substantial, systematic change, Gladwell argues that social media could actually have a negative effect, by creating an environment which favors weak-ties over strong ones.

Gladwell’s essay was critiqued as a straw man argument, most notably by Twitter founders, Ev Williams and Biz Stone, who described his essay as “laughable,” “absurd” and “pointless” — not because he bashed Twitter, but because he overestimated the potential for social media to create change. They mocked Gladwell, stating that no person actually thinks a revolution will literally be tweeted. Rather, they argue that, “the real-time exchange of information” facilitated by communication technologies is “complementary to activism”; it makes activists more efficient and effective.

To give Gladwell the benefit of the doubt, he does not discount social media as a useful tool for activists, but rather questions the extent to which our reliance on these tools has skewed our definition of social change. In contrast to traditional activist movements organized by hierarchies, Facebook and Twitter are built on horizontal networks, which diffuse responsibility and thus limit accountability. Though they are great at recruiting people in mass to join a cause, there is no means of holding anyone accountable to actually attend a protest. Do 100 truly committed people have a bigger impact than 100,000 supporters on Facebook?

Though Gladwell would say yes, there is some truth to the theory that strong-ties can come from weak-ties by turning passive supporters online into dedicated activists in real life. Given the millions of users logging on to social networking sites daily, if this theory holds true even one percent of the time, it proves beneficial for social activism at large.

In addition to a lack of accountability, the constant bombardment of news and information provided by the Internet promotes a high turnover rate, allowing people to be temporary activists without engaging in a cause for the long haul. Take, for example, the text-to-donate campaign following the Haitian earthquake in 2009. Through mere five-letter text messages denoting $10 donations, the American Red Cross raised over $24 million. While this mobile campaign was wildly successful in providing immediate funds for the Haitian people, from Gladwell’s perspective, it is still a “weak” — though certainly worthy — type of activism, as little sacrifice was made on the individual level.

To be fair, activists are not defined by degrees of sacrifice alone. In the case of the text-message campaign, the power of the collective $10 donations overpowered individual monetary efforts, challenging Gladwell’s theory. However, only a small minority of those who sent text messages in support of Haiti have remained dedicated activists. People have moved on and Haiti has fallen off our radar once again despite the fact that the country remains in ruin. This is not to trivialize the impact of the Red Cross campaign, but rather to draw attention to the limitations of such efforts.

Social media and communication technologies are one means to the very large and complex end of social change. They are not a panacea, nor a replacement for our intrinsic ability to create transformative change. When used correctly and in accordance with our natural drive, passion and brains, technology can be truly revolutionary. Yet on its own, these tools are nothing more than superficial gimmicks to make us feel like the activists we all wish we could be.

Carolyn Witte is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at cwitte@cornellsun.com. Wit’s End appears alternate Thursdays this semester.

Original Author: Carolyn Witte